Wilson, Edith Bolling (1872–1961)

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Wilson, Edith Bolling (1872–1961)

First lady of the United States who may have run the country between 1915 and 1921 . Name variations: Edith Bolling Galt; Edith Galt Wilson. Born on October 15, 1872, in Wytheville, Virginia; died on December 28, 1961, in Washington, D.C.; seventh child of William Holcombe Bolling (a lawyer and circuit judge) and Sallie (White) Bolling; married NormanGalt, on April 30, 1896, in Wytheville, Virginia (died 1908); became second wife of Woodrow Wilson (president of the United States), on December 18, 1915, in Washington, D.C. (died 1924); children: (first marriage) one son who died in infancy.

It is ironic that Edith Bolling Wilson, who once referred to a parade of picketing suffragists as "detestable," was later accused of usurping her husband's power. However, in 1919, when President Woodrow Wilson suffered a life-threatening stroke, Edith Wilson embarked on what she termed her "stewardship," though it was characterized in the press as "Mrs. Wilson's Regency" and "petticoat government."

Edith Bolling, a ninth-generation descendant of Pocahontas and John Rolfe, was born in 1872 and raised in the impoverished town of Wytheville, Virginia, the seventh of eleven children of William Holcombe Bolling and Sallie White Bolling . Her father, forced to surrender the family plantation after the Civil War, turned

to law to support his large extended family, which included two grandmothers and two aunts. Money was scarce, and Edith's education consisted of home tutoring and two years at finishing schools.

When she was 18, Edith visited her sister in Washington, D.C., and there met and married Norman Galt, the cousin of her sister's husband and a partner in a family-held jewelry firm. The business flourished, and the couple lived comfortably for 12 years, traveling yearly to Europe and owning one of Washington's first electric cars. A son was born in 1903, but lived only three days. When her husband died suddenly in 1908, Edith inherited the business, which she managed for two years, then sold for a handsome profit. She took in Altrude Gordon , the orphaned, teenaged daughter of a friend. The two women traveled extensively, and even undertook a canoe trip in the wilderness of Maine. Through Gordon's fiancé, Admiral Gary Grayson, the White House physician, Edith met Woodrow Wilson's cousin, Helen Woodrow Bones , who had come to live in the White House after the death of Wilson's first wife Ellen Axson Wilson .

It was through her friendship with Bones that Edith met Woodrow, literally colliding with him as she exited an elevator during a visit to the White House. The chance encounter led to tea in the Oval Room, at which time the president is said to have laughed for the first time since his wife's death, seven months earlier. From their first meeting, the president talked openly to Edith about state affairs, a practice he had begun with Ellen Wilson.

During their subsequent courtship, he installed a White House phone line to Edith's home, sending information on international and domestic issues by messenger, and calling her later to ask her opinions. This began what she called a "partnership of thought and comradeship," which served as her political internship. Two months after their chance meeting, the president proposed. With hopes of reelection in 1916, political advisors felt it might be too soon after the death of his wife for the president to re-marry, and Edith had serious misgivings about the enormous responsibilities she would face as first lady. The wedding was postponed until nine months later, December 18, 1915. Soon after, the president barely squeaked out a reelection victory over his Republican challenger.

During the stressful years of World War I, Edith made sure the president took time to relax, often joining him for a morning golf game or an afternoon horseback ride. She ran a tight wartime household in the White House, observing "wheatless and meatless days" and conserving heat and gas. The executive mansion became a hub of Red Cross work. Sheep grazed on the White House lawn, keeping it in trim, and providing wool to be sold for the war effort. Edith Wilson was even pressed into service naming battleships; she chose Native American names for many, in honor of her proud heritage.

After the Armistice in 1919, Edith accompanied the president to Europe, where he spent months pushing through an acceptable peace treaty, but Edith was alarmed by his recurring headaches and insomnia. Returning home, he waged a second battle to sell the League of Nations to the Senate. On an exhaustive crosscounty train trip to take his case to the people, he suffered a collapse that was reported in the press as "a complete nervous breakdown." Back at the White House, on October 2, 1919, he suffered a massive stroke, which paralyzed his left side and threatened his life. The illness was shrouded in secrecy, and there were rumors that the president was dying or insane. No one but Edith and his doctors was allowed to see him.

Though Edith claimed that her "stewardship" lasted only six weeks, there are those who believe that she directed the executive branch of the government for the remaining 17 months of her husband's term. There is little doubt that she acted in what she believed to be her husband's best interest. When she proposed that the president resign, she was told by Dr. Grayson and other attending specialists that removing her husband's sense of purpose might kill him. "Have everything come to you," they advised. "Weigh the importance of each matter and see if it is possible to solve it by consultation with the head of the department involved without your husband's advice." Edith complied. To her many critics, she claimed, "I, myself, never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs. The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not." For four years, as the president's closest confidant, Edith had knowledge of his thoughts on many matters, but her detractors believe that she may have used the opportunity to distance the president from Cabinet level officials she did not like.

Woodrow Wilson never fully recovered. By November, he was seen in a wheelchair on the South Portico, but it was not until April that Cabinet meetings were resumed. Questions about his competency and Edith's influence persisted. When Wilson retired in 1921, after the Democrats and Warren Harding were elected by a landslide, Edith acted as nurse and companion until his death on February 3, 1924.

The remainder of her life was spent perpetuating her husband's memory and ideals. She was an active director of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, traveled to Poland for the unveiling of a statue of him, and participated in the Woodrow Wilson Centennial Celebration in 1956. She had all of her husband's letters copyrighted and took personal pains to answer all her own mail. She remained a staunch Democrat, speaking on behalf of a number of candidates. One of her last public appearances was in a seat of honor at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy.

Edith Bolling Wilson died of heart failure on December 28, 1961, the anniversary of her husband's birth. It was not until 1967 that the 25th amendment to the Constitution, "Presidential Disability and Succession," became law, insuring that her particular situation would never be repeated.

sources:

Healy, Diana Dixon. America's First Ladies: Private Lives of the Presidential Wives. NY: Atheneum, 1988.

Means, Marianne. The Woman in the White House. NY: Random House, 1963.

Melick, Arden David. Wives of the Presidents. Maple-wood, NJ: Hammond, 1977.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.

suggested reading:

Ross, Ishbel . Power with Grace: The Life Story of Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, 1975.

Wilson, Edith Bolling, and Alden Hatch. My Memoir, 1961.

collections:

Edith Bolling Wilson Papers and Woodrow Wilson Papers, Library of Congress.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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